Myth:  The Best Way to Understand Martin Luther King is “Doctor King”

King Memorial, Washington, DC.

On this 30th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an eye-opening Washington Post story describes five common myths about King.  (One myth: “King’s focus was racism in the South.”  Yet King also opposed American militarism and campaigned against poverty in the north.)

But one myth not named by the Post is propagated by the National King Memorial itself, a monument that is situated at the center of the U.S. capital in Washington DC.  I visited the memorial in 2012.  It is only a stone’s throw from the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.  It is moving. It is majestic. I am still astounded that the U.S. placed a monument to a non-violent peacemaker here.

Yet the monument ultimately gets King wrong.  Fourteen stirring quotations from King are spread around the site, such as this one:  “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

But in not a single one of the quotations is God mentioned.

The monument is to Dr. King. Not Reverend King. Not the preacher King. Yet King’s ministry facing down America’s transgressions to redeem the soul of the nation made no sense to himself apart from the Scripture and church that shaped him and the Lord to whom he prayed.

One of the most important stories King told was of his “kitchen table” encounter in 1956 where he was ready to give up the civil rights struggle due to intense opposition and hate. In his book Stride Toward Freedom King testified that there, alone in his home, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

The fundamental identity of Martin Luther King was not grounded in his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. His core identity and imagination was grounded in that prayer, and in the preaching and way of seeing the world and the enemy which flowed from it.  Without getting that right, we don’t get Reverend King right either.

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